Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland v Republic? Bring it on, say Martin and Michael

By Steven Beacom

Michael O'Neill and Martin O'Neill have revealed they would welcome a friendly international between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland before both teams fly off to compete in the Euro 2016 finals.

The O'Neills were speaking after being named joint winners of the 2015 Philips Sports Manager of the Year award at a glittering ceremony in Dublin yesterday.

Northern Ireland and the Republic did play in June, drawing 0-0 at the Aviva Stadium, though that was an unofficial game behind closed doors arranged by both managers to help their preparation for vital qualifiers.

The last official fixture was four and a half years ago in Dublin in the ill-fated Carling Nations Cup competition. Prior to that there were several controversial games in the 90s.

Now there is a chance of a friendly in May or June ahead of the O'Neills taking their respective teams to France.

Northern Ireland boss Michael said: "I would not have a problem with it. As a player I played in five matches between the sides and they were special games to be involved in so if that opportunity presented itself and the two Associations (the IFA and FAI) think it's right and it aids both of us in terms of preparation, why not?

"I am open to the idea. From a football point of view, I can certainly see the benefit, though the decision is not just down to me. The IFA board would have to decide whether they feel merit in that fixture which has had problems in the past."

Republic manager Martin, who captained Northern Ireland in the 1982 World Cup finals, added: "It's a fairly lengthy time since the two countries have played against each other; it may happen."

Should a North v South friendly before the Euro finals not take place, there is a possibility that the two nations could meet in the tournament. To have any chance of that though they would both have to progress to the knockout stages.

Northern Ireland manager O'Neill, 46, said: "That would be nice, but my focus in the run up to France and when we arrive there will be to get out of our group."

His namesake stated: "I am inclined to agree with Michael, just trying to get out of the group would be the important thing."

Both O'Neills will sign new contracts in the coming weeks.

While discussions with the IFA over Michael's new four year deal are progressing well, 63-year-old Martin is equally positive about extending his future with the FAI, with talks expected next month. He is also confident his assistant Roy Keane will stay on beyond the European Championships.

"Regarding Roy, I absolutely want him here for the Euros and if we continue on, who knows? I might be wrong but I don't think at this minute he is in any mad rush to clear off," said O'Neill.

While previous Republic managers have claimed the prestigious Philips Manager of the Year prize, O'Neill was the first Northern Ireland boss to do so in the 33 year history of the award.

The younger O'Neill was content to share it with his good friend.

"I'm very proud to win the award and to be recognised alongside Martin," said the ex-Shamrock Rovers boss.

"I have spoken to Martin on a couple of occasions about different things in terms of my own career. He has been a hugely successful manager in the Premier League, did extremely well with Celtic in Scotland and has great European experience.

"I suppose there's a good gap between us in terms of where we are and the experience we have had as managers. Certainly as we go along, hopefully I can emulate Martin.

"As a kid he was an inspiration to me. The 1982 World Cup was my first real experience of a World Cup and Martin was captain of the team. Martin had actually retired by the time I became an international. Now we are both international managers and looking forward to the Euro finals in the summer."

The ex-Celtic, Aston Villa and Sunderland boss said: "A couple of months ago I was very envious of Michael because he had qualified for the Euros with Northern Ireland as table toppers and we had to go through the play-off.

"Michael's achievement was just fantastic and I'm so pleased to be joining him in France.

"It is the first time both teams have qualified for the finals of a major tournament and I think the closer we get to the tournament we will realise how significant that really is."

Belfast Telegraph